In June 2018, just after the general election, a politician friend of mine called and asked me to provide him bullets as to why ESSCOM should be disbanded. On the contrary, I offered him 10 good reasons as to why ESSCOM should remain relevant.
I could easily sense his disappointment with my responses but the question that arise is the general perception that the ESSZONE waters is not safe for users despite the establishment of ESSCOM.
I could not help but see such a perception as both fair and unfair. Almost eight years have passed since the establishment of ESSCOM in 2013.
It is fair to suggest that despite the many strategic steps that have been taken to enhance safety and security of ESSZONE but the battle to secure Sabah’s eastern seaboard is still work in progress.
Though threats posed by the Royal Sulu Force (RSF) have waned or remain dormant, the significant security issue that perceive ESSZONE as unsafe is the recurring kidnapping cases; from a high 9 cases in 2016 to one case in 2020.
These significant reduction in number of KFR cases not only reflects ESSCOM’s resolves but could also be attributed to the battle of Marawi (May-Oct 2017) and the ongoing military operations in the Sulu archipelago. I could not agree more to suggest that one KFR case is one too many but as we all are aware that the KFR threat is trans-border in nature hence the Malaysian security forces, particularly ESSCOM, could not do it alone. While ESSCOM have hardened possible targets and keeping our side of waters policed, ESSCOM too have maintained a very active defence posture.
They have not been shy about using force, and thus far have thwarted more than 40 attempted KFRs, and killed nine suspected kidnappers on three encounters both at sea and ashore. The real issue is on the other side of the border. The Sulu Sea has always been a hotspot for piracy and kidnapping. It is said that such acts and their many other crimes by different groups occurred as early as the 16th century. In recent years, kidnapping for ransom groups (KFRGs) seems free to operate from their nests/ sanctuaries and roam their waters with impunity.
The neighbour’s authorities know that the onus was on them to enhance security and deter incursions into Sabah. But all said and done we could only hope that these KFRGs, their nests and networks are destroyed and or neutralised by our neighbour to stop these cross-border incursions.
A similar intensity like the Marawi campaign against these KFRGs is necessary. Until and unless these KFRGs are destroyed and or neutralised, ESSCOM could only continue to manage our waters and at best keep the KFR incidences as low as possible. It is easy to pass judgement that ESSCOM is ineffective. For Sabah, especially in the ESSZONE, KFR threats and other cross-border crimes cannot be addressed by hardening vulnerable targets, enhancing border security, augmenting bilateral and tri-lateral security cooperation, and increasing patrol cycles alone. Instead, there should be an equal focus on community policing by utilising and empowering the role of the Village Community Management Council (MPKK) and the coastal community on their roles to be the eyes and ears for ESSCOM to ensure ESSZONE is safe and secure. Moreover, there must be a real will to resolve the many illegal immigrants and undocumented people issues in the ESSZONE. And finally, the concept of prosper thy neighbours could be pursued to reduce the pull and push factor into Sabah.